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Secondary replacements struggle to slow Mike Evans

CJ Henderson

TAMPA, Fla. — The Panthers had a shot, a chance to win a division.

What they didn't have was their two starting cornerbacks, and when the guy throwing at the replacements is Tom Brady, that's a difficult thing to overcome.

Playing without Jaycee Horn (out after wrist surgery on Tuesday) and without Donte Jackson (on injured reserve with a torn Achilles), the Panthers couldn't stop the Buccaneers' deep passing game in a 30-24 loss that ended Carolina's playoff hopes.

Bucs wideout Mike Evans finished with 10 catches for 207 yards and three touchdowns (of 63, 57, and 30 yards) as the Panthers struggled across the board to stop him. And they didn't ask much from Josh Norman in his first game back and his first game since last January.

"When you talk about adjustments, I don't think it's schematic," Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks said. "I think it's just execute your technique."

Evans got behind Keith Taylor Jr. (who started in Horn's spot) on the first touchdown, on the type of go-route the Panthers anticipated after Evans dropped what would have been a walk-in touchdown in Week 7 (after Jackson slipped and left him wide open).

"Yeah, for sure, we expected that," Taylor said.

"He just got me; I would say," the second-year corner continued. "He just got me, straight up. He made the plays, and I didn't."

While Evans was trailed by cornerback CJ Henderson on the second score, safety Xavier Woods took the blame for that one.

"Some of them were difficult, some of them we were in bad spots," Woods said. "The one on CJ was my fault. I was supposed to protect him on that one. I was supposed to roll coverage to him, was supposed to be over the top of it."

Woods said when Brady pump-faked, he hesitated. Evans slowed his route before accelerating past Henderson and then took off and was wide open.

"That wasn't on CJ," Woods said. "The rest of them were man coverage, and he's a good receiver."

CJ Henderson

Henderson left the locker room without talking to a group of reporters waiting for him by his locker.

Evans' big day was the third-highest single-game receiving total allowed in franchise history, behind Julio Jones' 300 in Atlanta in 2016 (the year after Norman went to Washington), and 208 by Washington's Rod Gardner in 2001 (the year the Panthers went 1-15).

But Norman wasn't much of a factor Sunday. Wilks said he didn't want to put the 35-year-old, who was out of the league before signing to the practice squad Monday, "in a strained situation."

"We talked about it as a staff and defensively," Wilks said. "We talked about it but decided to stay with the guys that we had."

So Norman wasn't out there often, as the other young corners on the roster were struggling.

He shrugged when asked about his lack of activity, offering no opinion on why he wasn't out there more often. Of course, Norman has never been fast (the 29-year-old Evans isn't known for his speed either, though).

But he knows it was an emotional loss, particularly because of how close the Panthers were to winning it. That pain is the kind of thing you can grow from. Having guys healthy again would also help.

"It's four-quarter ball, 11 men on the field," Norman said. "One man doesn't make it or break it, you have to play as a unit. These guys will be just fine. Got to think about it, a young team, they have a lot to build upon. And they're doing everything they can to build on it.

"They're tasting it now, because they had an opportunity. They're tasting it."

View the best in-game photos from Carolina's Week 17 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on New Years Day.

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